When I entered seminary, a month shy of my 50th birthday, it came as a surprise to people who had known me for many years. I remember the wife of my undergraduate economics professor, herself a sociologist, commenting that she had just read an article about middle aged people (or, in my case, past middle age) entering the ministry. Then she smiled at me and said, “But you are the LAST person I would have thought would go to seminary.” I laughed and thanked her for the compliment.
Like so many of my classmates, I left college with a deep distrust of organized religion. My study of history and science had rendered me an unbeliever. Now, 45 years later, I was returning to my undergraduate college reunion as the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Not only that, I had been asked to be part of a panel on religion in the modern world.
Last weekend I attended my college reunion. I attended a small “cluster college” that was part of the University of the Pacific. Raymond College had been a bold adventure in the liberal arts.
I wondered whether anyone would come to the panel discussion. The title was “The Role of Religion in Contemporary Society” and we were up against two other panel discussions being held at the same time. Worse yet, this was after lunch on Saturday. People were happily renewing friendships and catching up on decades of news. It was a lovely California afternoon.
As it turned out, the classroom soon filled up. Extra chairs had to be brought in. A few people stood in the doorway and out in the hall. A handful of the most nimble sat on the floor. Sadly, some people came, saw that there was no room, gave up and went away. You have to understand that among my college friends from the 1960s to be religious was the rough equivalent of being a right wing Republican or a member of the NRA. It simply was not done. And on the beautiful Saturday afternoon they packed the room for a panel on religion.
The people I went to college with are amazing and can even seem a little intimidating (until you know them). They have had distinguished careers in foreign service, in law, in science, in higher education.
In my very brief comments I talked about religion “beyond belief,” about how religion should be much more about what we love, about what moves us, than about what we think. I also spoke about the deep human need for community and transcendence.
One of my surprises was to find out how many UUs there are among them. (One classmate even showed up wearing a Morales for UUA President t-shirt.) During the day and a half that my wife Phyllis and I were there (we were classmates and married immediately after graduation) we kept having people come up and tell us that they were members of this or that congregation. And even among those who belong to no religious group (the majority), the interest in religion was amazing.
There are important lessons to be learned here. Once more, I am convinced of the potential for our movement—a potential that can only be realized if we become much better at reaching out and engaging those who are in deep sympathy with us. They are legion.
More importantly, I am convinced of the spiritual hunger for community that respects modern learning, is committed to act with compassion and to advocate for justice, and that transcends the banality and narcissism of consumer culture.
We can be the religion for our time for millions. Really. Really. The overflowing classroom for a panel about religion is just one sign of the times. The challenge for us is to seize this historic opportunity.